Upwardly Mobile

January 23, 2017
Melanie White ’14 and tutor Eder Nuñez ’17 go house to house in the Hillside  community of Centralia, encouraging people to sign up for literacy classes.

In a garage-turned-classroom, Melanie White ’14 looks on as Eder Nuñez ’17 leads a literacy info session.

Why would a combo of Evergreen students and Olympia community groups convert a garage at a mobile home park into a classroom and outfit it with computers and a movie screen? It’s all part of an ambitious plan to enable residents of the Hillside community in Centralia, Wash. to improve their economic outlook through literacy, access to computer technology, and affordable home ownership.

Building home equity can be one of the best ways to build financial stability, but it was out of reach for Hillside residents. Although most in the mobile home park owned their manufactured homes, all rented the land beneath the homes. The Northwest Cooperative Development Center (NWCDC), through a program called Resident Owned Communities, or ROC, is helping these low-income, mostly Latino homeowners become owners of the land under their homes and develop a cooperative business structure to manage their property.

Melanie White ’14, a graduate student in Evergreen’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, signed on as an NWCDC intern to work on the Hillside project. “I wanted to intern at the Center because I wanted to work with the Latino community, and that’s actually why I applied to the MPA program. You see, I moved here from Mexico when I was 6 and English is my second language. Frances Rains, a professor I had as an undergrad, said, ‘knowledge is responsibility,’ and I felt like I could utilize my knowledge to inspire others and give others an opportunity as well.”

First, White helped with cooperative-development tasks. Then she and her NWCDC colleagues identified three key skillsets the newly minted Hillside Homeowners Cooperative would need in order to become successful business operators. These included Spanish-language literacy, English-language literacy, and the computer literacy they would need for conducting the cooperative’s business.

“We wanted to make a difference in this specific community,” White says, “and they needed these [step stools] to be able to run their cooperative business better. The board of directors has to be in constant communication with their property manager. We taught them how to use email for communication and use Google applications for business documents like meeting minutes and newsletters.”

Knowledge is responsibility

Completing this work depended on securing funding and community partners for the project. With the help and encouragement of Ellen Shortt-Sanchez ’92, MPA ’10, director of Evergreen’s Center for Community-Based Learning and Action (CCBLA), White wrote a grant proposal for a Washington Campus Compact Students Serving Washington Award. She won a $10,000 grant for her proposal, “Latino Immigrants in Technology: Using the Cooperative Business Model to Preserve Affordable Housing.”

The award recognizes faculty and student teams of social entrepreneurs at Washington Campus Compact member institutions who develop innovative solutions to the question: “How can we foster economic development through entrepreneurship in Washington state?”

“I wanted to learn how to write a grant,” White explains, “so this was the perfect opportunity to practice these skills. Ellen helped us develop this grant, and once we got it she was very helpful and supportive.”

Conducting a symphony of empowerment

Daniel Luis Arrañaga, the NWCDC cooperative development specialist and White’s internship field supervisor, praises her work. “Melanie has orchestrated the entire project. She has gone above and beyond what we expected her to accomplish. Now she’s moved up to more of a leadership role, working with other interns.”

Shortt-Sanchez agrees. “Melanie’s project is very Evergreen: It’s a creative exploration journey, with cross-organizational and issue collaboration embedded in how it works. Melanie sees community work as a collaboration and wants to recognize the individuals and organizations who are making the program a success.”

White does not wish to stand in the spotlight alone, and points out that the multi-layered program’s success is a community effort, with many Evergreen computer science and Latin American studies students involved. The leadership team also includes Evergreen faculty and staff advisors and the CCBLA. The NWCDC and the Proyecto CIELO Integral Latino Educational Center of Olympia literacy program are key community partners.

In a garage-turned-classroom, Melanie White ’14 looks on as Eder Nuñez ’17 leads a literacy info session.

In a garage-turned-classroom, Melanie White ’14 looks on as Eder Nuñez ’17 leads a literacy info session.

The project team used part of the $10,000 grant to buy computers for the Hillside classroom. White and her student project partner and CIELO tutor, Eder Nuñez ’17, have been going door-to-door at Hillside to invite residents to begin their learning journey with CIELO Plaza Communitaria online primary- and secondary-level Spanish lessons. After completing those classes, residents can go on to take ESL classes.

Some residents have already received computer training, White says. “We have already completed the IT training for the cooperative’s board of directors. Now I’m moving on with the literacy training. I translated the IT training curriculum into Spanish and did a mock training in another ROC in Moses Lake. The one in Centralia was taught in English.”

In White’s first MPA night classes, she had observed that many of her older classmates could apply what they were learning to their day jobs, while White, one of the younger students in her cohort, could not—she had yet to land her first post-college job. She decided an internship was the best way to gain practical professional experience and put her academic studies to work. While the Hillside Homeowners Cooperative project doesn’t wind down until March, it has already met White’s dual goals of helping the Latino community and giving her the theory-into-practice experience she sought.

Encouragement for Budding Entrepreneurs

Less than 5 percent of students report that their studies at Evergreen are concentrated on business. But when we survey alumni 15 years after graduation, we find that more than 25% report owning businesses or being self-employed. Many more are using entrepreneurial skills—creativity, risk-taking, and collaboration—in their work with nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

In response to these findings, a group of faculty, staff, and students are examining the many ways that Evergreen currently supports entrepreneurial students, through academic programs, student organizations, and mentoring. The group is looking for new ways that Evergreen can help prepare students for the entrepreneurial paths many of them will take.

Alumni keen to participate in entrepreneurship conversations, mentoring activities, events, and more should contact alumni@evergreen.edu.